22 August 2010
I had some ambivalence about the small venue tour Sufjan went on last fall — the music’s Liberace-like indulgence, the way his band consciously abandoned structure but then, perhaps, overshot that effort and abandoned good taste. Philosophically it was intriguing; the music that resulted felt a bit forced. It meandered where, before, it was compulsively engaging.
I’m only a few listens into his new release, an EP titled All Delighted People, but it excites me on a number of levels. I like way he released it: an intentionally desultory approach wherein it just kind of popped up on a wonky, semi-established internet site with a rough hewn but charming cover, the kind of image an ambitious teenage kid might cut & paste on the cover of a mix tape or CD. (Sidenote: Do people still make mixtapes?)
I like the weird heft of it — a 60 minute EP! — and the through-line it maintains from Sufjan’s recent public statements to the musical execution of the recording. In a long interview with Paste Magazine, he had expressed a lack of faith in established musical formats (via Pitchfork). i.e.
Most importantly I like the music in and of itself. He’s tamped down the “too much jazz” of last year’s tour, but maintains the loose intensity of the music he played and an emotional register which is even more idiosyncratic than the songs he’s released in the past. On the website for his label Asthmatic Kitty he calls it “a dramatic homage to the Apocalypse, existential ennui, and Paul Simon’s ‘Sounds of Silence,’” though it feels as much like a jazz/classical/noise version of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.
It’s loose, it’s messy, it’s redolent of the 1970s and it has soul. It sounds like a good way to spend a Sunday morning.
PS – The morning after writing this post, while actually listening to it on a Sunday morning, the influence of church music also came to the fore: the ecstasies and intimacies and oh-so-human breakdowns; the gender-neutral chorus wherein the vocal registers of the singers remains ambiguously castrati-like; the final resolution of the songs which sets a certain tone: one of hard-earned uplift and hard-won peace.
Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis
15 January 2010
I like new sounds.
I only really like new sounds, however, when they are encased in a structure that propels them — be it a folk music architecture of repetitive and/or shopworn patterns; composed music’s cerebral, considered developments; or a dance music’s tension and release model.
I dislike music that prides itself solely on being free jazz, experimental, avant-garde classical. That’s the equivalent of priding yourself on “being fun at parties.” (What do you do when the party ends and it’s time to do household chores or eat breakfast?) The real problem with music that is insistently & exclusively devoted to extremity, however, is that it’s rarely fun enough to give me a reason to put it on. I don’t know about you but I’m a busy guy. For music to work well, I need to desire it, I need to want to put it on while doing other things: the laundry, for example, or cooking. Folk, composition & dance structures are like spoons full of sugar that make the medicine go down.
I think this ethic of mine as being somewhat au courant, even. It sort of echoes the current vogue for sustainability: Everyone and everything should have multiple uses, expansive comfort zones, real utility. When slaughtering a pig, the bladder should be saved to make sausage, the skin can be turned into cowboy boots. Don’t buy disposable clothes. Don’t take that filmsy, black, plastic shopping bag.
Similarly, I believe the music we advocate should work well on headphones and as ringtones and in a room filled with pleasant company (or, well, okay, unpleasant company, too — I’m cool with that).
You may disagree with the killing of a pig part, but with the rest I think most sane humans would agree.
I disagree with the pursuit of a perpetual avant-garde. Especially when it comes to individual artists seeking eternal progress within the scope of a single career. This is, in part, a Darwinian notion. Unless you’re a creationist you’d never expect an amoeba, in the span of its life, to sprout legs. Nor would you expect a dinosaur to grow wings, or an ape to change the cut of it’s jib, the bulge of its jaw.
Why, then, do some musicians think it’s a realistic life goal to do more than find the natural limits of their individual creativity? to do more than find the secret sound of their unchained heart? to discover anything more than the vibration that they were meant to make?
At best humankind is a bell not the clocktower. You can stand on the shoulders of giants. But after puberty — short the intervention of drugs or science — it’s very hard to grow.
Speaking of which, let’s start talking about the exciting & “mysterious” (aka “trying real hard to be…”) UK electronic musician named Zomby. His music is my favorite kind: a new sound housed in an old kind of building. The critic Simon Reynolds places his music in a genre those taxonomy-obsessed Brits have created called “wonky.” In his least Rock Critic-like moment, he blames the sound on drugs in the same way that baseball Mark McGuire blamed his drug use on the sports culture of the 1990s. Here’s the clip:
Want to test his thesis for yourself. Well, here is a second jam from our friend Zomby. How does it make you feel?
Well we are, for example, made to understand that this is a picture of the artist (via photographer Sidney Lo):
Okay then, fair enough. I doubt he gets his morning coffee dressed like that, but there’s no doubt people are as authentically excited by his sound as I am.
As well, I am excited about the larger movement dubbed “dubstep” of which Zomby is part. He’s put most of his records out on the scene’s most noted label Hyperdub. And the “wonky” genre that Reynolds places him in is actually a subgenre. Here’s another track which foregrounds where all the dub talk comes from:
Reynolds describes the “wonky” sound as taking “dubstep’s rhythmic grid and scrawled woozily all over it with fluorescent marker pens” — though “woozily scrawled flourescent rhythmic grid” sort of gets at the defining characteristic that makes me like a lot of the dubstep I’ve been hearing. To me it sounds something like spiritual contemporary reggae — mixing up the echoing beats & samples of Jamaican music and turning those iterations in on their head in technicolor spirals until what you have sounds less like a lazy day smoking joints than an evening of studying Mandelbrot sets on a dance floor:
Though I am not much for the power of da club I like it.
So, what is it that I’m hearing in this music? Well, recall that the most fascinating thing about fractal geometry is not the multi-colored neon in the computer models which illustrate it, and which have previously decorated Grateful Dead albums and the homes of potheads everywhere. Rather, the most fascinating thing about fractal geometry is its applications for understanding nature. Image of this Romanesco cauliflower via the UMass Boston computer science department website; images of leaves via me:
I expect we’ll be hearing a lot more about Zomby in the US now that Animal Collective have featured him on the cover of their guest edited issue of The Fader.
As for next steps to digging this kind of music? Might I recommend the work of fellow travelers from Los Angeles like Flying Lotus (whose connection is explicit having released material on the Hyperdub label), and J. Dilla (who is more of an ancestor, having passed away in 2006). As befits two African-American residents of Los Angeles, both are more rooted in hip-hop than Britain’s tradition of abstract dance music. But the whole lot of it = excellent.
Zomby “STRANGE FRUIT”
J. Dilla “DONUTS – BEST OF (EDIT)”
Mia Doi Todd (remixed by Flying Lotus) “MY ROOM IS WHITE”
Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis
Tags: Dubstep, Ethics, Flying Lotus, Fractal Geometry, Free Jazz, Hyperdub, J. Dilla, M.I.A., Mandelbrot Set, Mia Doi Todd, Romanesco Cauliflower, Rusko, Simon Reynolds, The Problem With Nostalgia, Wonky, Zomby